Dissolution concerns the investigation of a murder in a monastery in Tudor England, just as the monks' world is poised to end. Matthew Shardlake is a London lawyer working through the religious upheaval in the reign of Henry VIII. Commissioned by Thomas Cromwell - the King's minister dedicated to the destruction of the monasteries - he is sent on a mission to the south coast of England. His mission is to investigate the death of a royal representative at the remote monastery of Scarnsea in Sussex.
When Shardlake arrives with his young assistant Mark, a handsome clerk with a weakness for females, he discovers a mysterious murder. The king's commissioner has been decapitated with a sword. But in a monastery, who would be capable of such a deed?
Shardlake and his assistant then proceed to question the leading monks, all of whom have something to conceal. There is the worldly, self-made Abbot, the nervous and miserly bursar, a dark-skinned Moorish apothecary, a foul-mouthed prior with a tough military background. And there are other suspects: a raving, crippled monk who makes threats against the regime destroying the monastic world; and a beautiful but cynical female assistant in the infirmary.
The violence does not end with the first murder. As the killer seeks to cover their tracks, more deaths follow. Putting his sharp legal mind to the process of unmasking the killer Shardlake is hampered by physical disability. Since a boy he has been crippled by a hunchback, causing him bodily pain and mental anguish; no doctor can cure him, while many believe him cursed and women spurn his appearance.
As Shardlake becomes sure of the killer's identity the book draws to a thrilling conclusion, including a deadly scene in the abbey church and a dash across the perilous seaside marshes in pursuit of the villain. But, even if the mystery is solved, this may not be enough to save the monastery of Scarnsea from dissolution.
Aside from the action, the author compelling gives a flavor of daily life in Tudor London, and in the last days of the monasteries. He furthermore captures the political and religious turmoil of the period, while exploring Shardlake's changing views on his masters' policies and his personal faith.
Best part of story, including ending:
Many works of historical fiction go to great lengths to demonstrate the author's research and this often gets in the way of the story. Sansom - a historian himself - wears his learning lightly and provides just enough description to evoke the Tudor world.
Best scene in story:
My personal favorite scene is Shardlake's interview with Thomas Cromwell near the beginning of the book. This not only helps introduce the hero, but paints a compelling if sinister portrait of Cromwell, the Machiavellian adviser of Henry VIII. It is an interesting portrayal of the shift from Catholic to Protestant attitudes in the 1530s.
Opinion about the main character:
I like the manner in which Matthew Shardlake uses his legal skills - collecting evidence, testing its truth, cross-examining his suspects - which makes a refreshing change from the police-based or amateur approaches found in most crime fiction.
King Henry VIII of England solved his marital and financial problems by making himself head of the Church. But he threw his country into chaos. The seats of learning and privilege, the monasteries, had to be dissolved as a result. Commissioner Robin Singleton was sent by Lord Thomas Cromwell to investigate stories of lechery and illegal land sales at the Monastery at Scarnsea. He was murdered for his trouble; a bloody beheading. Hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake was chosen to find out what happened quickly and secretly before the scandal got to the King's ears.
Matthew found plenty of evidence of lack of obedience to the Benedictine rule and soft and lecherous living. He ruled out the simpler monks and servants as being responsible for the killing and concentrated on the senior monks; since the sword was a gentleman's weapon. Young Simon Whelplay, weak and ill and badly treated by the Prior, had a story to tell, but was murdered before he could report.
The missing sword was found in the marsh together with the body of a young woman servant who was thought to have run away with two golden chalices. Matthew returned to London to find out who the owner of the sword had been.
This report prepared by Ray Audrey
C. J. Sansom
Viking, May 2003, 24.95, 390 pp.
King Henry VIII selects Thomas Cromwell to destroy the Roman Church through newly enacted laws, phony trials, and informers in every walk of life. Cromwell performs his assignment with zeal, but also worries about a revolt from the oppressed Papists and others opposed to the newly formed Church of England.
In 1537 Cromwell learns that someone murdered one of his agents Commissioner Singleton while on the King' s business at the Monastery of St. Donatus the Ascendant of Scarnsea. He enlists lawyer Matthew Shardlake to investigate. Known in the court system for his hunchback, Shardlake and his clerk travel to the Benedictine cloister to make inquiries amongst close-mouthed individuals filled with animosity towards the outsiders. The sleuths find a hotbed of sexual depravity and treasonous acts, but worse to Shardlake, he obtains damaging information about his employer that places Cromwell bad light. Still he must stop a serial killer from murdering again.
Using historical facts and real persona from the period of “Dissolution of the English Monasteries” (1536-1540), C.J. Sansom provides readers with a vivid Tudor historical mystery. The background is so descriptive it overwhelms the prime theme of a well-written who-done-it in spite of interweaving tidbits into the plot. Shardlake is the glue as he refuses to allow his handicap back from keeping him from performing his duties but struggles with his values once he learns the truth about his mentor. Cromwell is cleverly drawn as a Machiavellian type by using authentic references to his recorded actions. Fans of historical mysteries with an emphasis on the era will appreciate DISSOLUTION.
This report prepared by Harriet Klausner